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All in the family

Source : BUSINESS_STANDARD
Last Updated: Fri, Jun 08, 2012 20:41 hrs

Same DNA, different attitudes. Srinivas Krishnan drives the Mini Cooper S, Convertible and the Countryman

Imagine three siblings — two brothers and one sister. One brother is a good-looking rogue, the other one is the practical and dependable sort, while the sister, well, she’s pretty and spunky. Meet the Mini family in India — the Cooper S, the Countryman and the Convertible.

I could tell you about their venerable ancestor — the 1959 Mini — an engineering marvel which provided the blueprint for virtually all the hatchbacks that you and I drive today. Or I could tell you how BMW took over, resurrected it ten years ago and made Mini a desirable, retro cool brand worldwide. Instead, I will tell you how they are to drive. You see, they share a lot of traits but on the move, exhibit their own individual personas.

My pick of the lot is easily the bonkers Mini Cooper S — not surprising, as we handsome devils generally like to hang out with each other. It wears the respectable veneer of a retro classic, but underneath, it is a proper thug. While all the three Minis are eyeball magnets on Indian roads, the Cooper S has a menacing look to it, with additional intakes on the bonnet and on the front diffuser to snort more air in and plenty of other go-faster bits. What about those two racing stripes on the hood? It may not be proven, but hey, they make the car go faster, don’t they? Peer under the hood and you can see what transforms a bread-and-butter Mini into a potent Cooper S.

The four-cylinder 1600cc petrol engine that powers Minis has been co-developed by BMW and Peugeot Citroen. In the Cooper S application, it gets a twin-scroll turbocharger with intercooler to make things really, really interesting. When we tested the acceleration times of the Mini Cooper S for Business Standard Motoring magazine, we were stunned by its velocity. It attains the century mark in just 7.21 seconds and its mid-range speeds were comparable to more powerful sedans. Sure, 182 bhp at 5500 rpm from the motor is terrific, but what makes all the difference is the 24.4 kg of torque that’s available on tap between just 1600 and 5000 revs! You would expect it to suffer from a huge case of turbo lag, but there’s no pause in its relentless power delivery. In fact, it’s the other way round. An overboost function gives it an additional burst of torque when you floor it. So hold on to that perfectly-sized steering wheel and brace yourself before you do just that. Oh, and did I tell you about the tiny Sport button that manipulates gearbox, steering and throttle settings to make the experience even more edgy?

Engine output is not everything to make a car fun to drive; it needs to handle well too. That’s the second wow factor (Or the 14th? I forgot) that makes the Cooper S an enthusiast’s car. The instantaneous performance of the engine is well matched to its dynamic underpinnings, making it a true fun-to-drive car. The car turns into corners beautifully even at high speeds. It seems to have a pivot somewhere between the gear lever and handbrake on which it seems to rotate. The feedback from the electromechanical steering setup is also just right.

But it’s not perfect. Unfortunately, the Cooper S comes only with a six-speed automatic transmission which sometimes has a mind of its own. Even if you use the paddles, it is still not as engaging as a slick shifting, short-throw manual transmission. Also, a car that hits you with its attitude when you merely glance at it should sound gruff as well. This one looks like Daniel Craig but sounds like Leonardo DiCaprio. Oh, and it may grip roads like it’s got chewing gum rather than rubber around its mean black alloy wheels but the consequence of that is a jarring ride. The suspension is extra firm; so the ride quality is harsh, especially on Mumbai roads which are unfortunately like Craig’s cheeks and not DiCaprio’s! But there’s no taking away from the adrenaline rush that the Cooper S provides every time you head out.

The same engine of the Cooper S does duty in the Countryman as well, but the feeling is not mutual. The Countryman is distinct from the other two as it is beefier. It is taller, wider and longer than the regular Mini — that’s because it has two additional doors and decent loading space at the rear as well. It is almost like an SUV without actually being one; yes, four-wheel drive is available as an option too. As it is heavier than the regular Mini, the potency of the engine is watered down, and then of course, there is the gearbox which does not want to downshift in a hurry. Stomp on the pedal anyway and all that power going to the front wheels afflicts it with torque steer. It wavers a bit initially, then grips the road and goes ahead. As it is taller (okay, the better ground clearance is a positive), the go-kart like handling that characterises the Cooper S is nowhere to be seen. Consequently, it is a Mini just by name and a host of design details, and not by character. However, the Countryman is immensely practical — you can squeeze in five adults in decent comfort and the rear seats also fold down to create more than enough room to move your house. But you don’t need a Mini to do that, do you?

For showing-off functions, there’s always the sister. As mentioned earlier, these Minis attract people the way all those male deodorants attract women, but the Convertible takes it a notch higher. With the roof down, it causes near-accidents on the road — it certainly couldn’t have been my face or my balding pate. I am sure it is the interiors of the car that are to be blamed. I haven’t told you about the funky insides of these Minis yet. There is a wealth of details and initially it can get a bit confusing. You need time to figure out where the controls are located and they are all true to the retro theme of the Mini, with mock-toggle switches and plastic panels that are painted to resemble metal. The dials are all funky and the dinner-plate sized central display on the dash harks back to the original Mini design. And at night, it is like the Milky Way.

The convertible roof is activated by an electro-hydraulic mechanism that folds it away neatly at the back and hey presto, in 15 seconds, it’s wind-in-the-scanty-hair motoring. In case you are really conscious of your scalp showing, the roof comes with a sliding function where only the front section slides back to give you a targa-top kind of feeling. That’s one compromise I could live with.

The motor in the Convertible I drove is the same 1.6-litre four-cylinder unit, but only here it’s not turbocharged. That translates to lower horses to flog; in normally-aspirated guise, it provides 120.6 bhp at 6000 rpm and 16.31 kg of torque at 4250 rpm. And that shows in the way the Convertible moves. Okay, 120 bhp is not bad a figure by itself, but it’s just that after driving the Cooper S, the Convertible seems tame in comparison. It does what it’s supposed to very well, and that is cruise around the city at night at regular speeds or go on early morning drives on the outskirts. So expect a wind chill and not an adrenaline rush. The gearbox of course is a bugbear, but for the Convertible it is not such a big issue because it is anyway a chilled-out vehicle.

The Mini range is not cheap. The Cooper S (what I call the rich man’s Swift) retails for Rs 28.6 lakh, while the Countryman is a hefty Rs 32.8 lakh and the Convertible brings the roof down at Rs 30.7 lakh. Gives a new meaning to family values, doesn’t it?




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